Who, Which, and That

Posted: March 25th, 2014, 12:37 pm   By: brittany.corners

“I want a guy who can play 36 holes and still have enough energy to take me and Warren to a ball game, and eat hot dogs—I’m talkin’ sausage hot dogs—and beer, not light beer, but beer. That’s my ad, print it up.”—There is indeed something about Mary Jensen’s stringent requirements for a mate


This week, we explain the difference between relative pronouns who, that, and which.

What is a Relative Pronoun?

In English, our basic relative pronouns are who, which, and that. Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses, which modify a word, phrase, or idea in the main clause. Take this sentence as an example: The lonely man who visited Craigslist was hoping to find love. The relative clause “who visited Craigslist”—signalled by the relative pronoun who—modifies “the lonely man.”

The triple threat of who, which, and that provide a common source of confusion for writers. Luckily, we have some simple guidelines to explain each relative pronoun.

Who

This only refers to human beings or animals with a name. (for example, “my dog Kevin Steven”). As we’ve reviewed before, use who when talking about a subject, and whom when referring to an object.

  • Ex) The man who fell upon the ice unleashed nature’s fury upon the unsuspecting hillbillies.
  • Ex) DCFS finally came and took away Blossom’s son, whom she had proudly used to creep out the world.

Which/That

That and which refer to inanimate objects or animals without a name. Use that with restrictive clauses, and which for nonrestrictive clauses. Check out our easy review of restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses for more on that distinction.

  • Ex) This is the hamburger that signalled the end of American civilization.
  • Ex) The meteor, which exploded over Russia, made everyone feel like a bunch of little monkeys at the mercy of a terrifying universe.

Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be the writer who rarely makes relative pronoun mistakes.